by Charlie Wellingham
All Souls Church in Bolton was consecrated in 1881, built for local textile mill owners Thomas and Nathaniel Greenhalgh, and is a classic example of the neo-Gothic style fashionable in this period of Victorian England. It was designed by Paley and Austin to dominate the townscape for miles around with its remarkable size, owing to the fact that it was required to seat a congregation of 800 worshippers at maximum occupancy. Sadly the industry that supported the workers of the congregation suffered badly throughout the late-20th century, and by the 1960s the Anglican Church was struggling to support such a large and underused building – finally the church was closed in 1986 and remained derelict for 25 years. An entire generation grew up in the shadows of this local landmark building having never seen its amazing interior.
The 2014 SPAB Scholars and Fellows were very lucky to visit All Souls Bolton to discuss the ambitious reuse plans that have been developed in partnership by the Churches Conservation Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund; converting the nave of the church into a mixed-use community centre via the insertion of free-standing ‘pods’ to a contemporary design, whilst retaining the chancel intact for smaller scale Christian worship. The new pods have been devised to respect the original fabric (they do not touch the surrounding walls or ceiling at all), whilst creating a bold counterpoint to the historic building in both form and materiality.
The most significant loss suffered in this adaptation is the removal of the original pews – and it was interesting to debate the impact of this on the character of the church. It clearly has a vast implication on the understanding of the space as it was designed for worship – but as this is agreed to no longer be a realistic future for the building, I would argue that their removal is justified; this one sacrifice paves the way for a new chapter of utility for this structure in the neighbourhood it was built to serve. I am a firm believer in the day-to-day use of our heritage buildings as the most enriching way for us to connect to our culture and history – rather than merely viewing them as an academically or aesthetically interesting artefact of a bygone age. It was fantastic to meet the design and construction teams who share these philosophies, and are working hard to realise them with such ambitious proposals.
Beyond the pods, an incredible team of craftspeople from Lambert & Walker conservation contractors are undertaking a full suite of repair works to ensure the derelict Victorian fabric is fit for 100 more years of service in its new community role. This includes re-laying the slate roof and lead gutters, and extensive conservation of the brick, stone and glass of the elevations in accordance with best practice principles. Alan Gardner, the highly experienced conservation surveyor overseeing the works to the historic fabric, explained to us that the project also sought to maximise the educational and outreach potential that the works could have within Bolton – establishing a sense of ownership within the community that would create true ‘sustainability’ and success. This ranges from open days for the public to technical days for professionals and a number of bursaries for young workers that have evolved into full apprenticeships and potential employment.
Happily this atmosphere of collaboration and knowledge-sharing meant we Scholars and Fellows were able to muck in and learn some new skills as well! Thanks to Gareth for the joinery instruction, thanks to Ian for the lime mortar pointing guidance, and thanks to James for sharing his amazing stone carving skills. We look forward to visiting the finished project in future to see the local community enjoying their new facilities, and enjoying a new way to appreciate and connect with the built heritage and history that has stood silently amongst them for so long.